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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Economics of Going Vegan: A Personal Look at Why It's Easier Said than Done

Disclaimer: Next to religion, politics, and sex it seems to me that the next touchiest subject is probably dietary concerns--what we eat and don't eat. What is contained in this essay are my own personal struggles and experiences with my own diet. The opinions here are my own. If you have any comments or questions feel free to leave them in the comment's section down below. Thank you.

I have been considering going vegan for a while now. 

I've given it a lot of thought, and I even went two months on a vegan diet. The problem is that in the area I live it's just not yet economical enough to sustain indefinitely.

A vegan I know online said I should have no problem doing it, as long as there is a supermarket within distance of my home. 

And there are three. But it's not the distance or even the availability of the produce that is the problem. It's the cost. A 2007 study by Adam Drewnowski found that buying healthy food costs 10 times more on average than your typical McDonald's hamburger

A head of lettuce, you ask? It's nearly three times the amount you would pay in your own local supermarket across the pond, or even your smaller ma' and pa' owned grocers, for that matter. I make a meager living as a teacher and work two jobs just to support my family, so we're strapped as it is. Budget always comes to the forefront of any big decisions.

My vegan friend then said that wasn't a valid excuse. If it comes down to murdering someone (his words, not mine) or paying a little extra for a salad, well, the choice should be obvious, right?

Not so fast.

Apart from the fact that I don't like equating animals to people, since we're more than a little different, if I was single and living alone then, yes, I think I would be willing to pay a little extra  for a vegan meal instead of implicitly killing animals for my food consumption. But the fact of the matter is that it's not just me I have to feed. It's a family of seven, soon to be eight, plus two dogs, and soon to be cat.

That's a lot of mouths to feed. It's a ton of lettuce. And it takes lettuce to by lettuce, if you know what I mean? Let's not forget that a head of lettuce is practically three times more expensive where I live. Same with tomatoes. Soy beans. Broccoli. Spinach. Watermelons. Kiwis. Bananas. Etc. See my problem?

My vegan friend said I should grow my own garden. And on what limited land we have we certainly do. 

My wife's garden is small but quite generous. We have home grown organic tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli. We do strawberries in the off-season. We tried for some corn this year too, but our little patch of land is too narrow and dim. It's only as wide as your average sidewalk and only about three meters long at that. And, well, that's the entirety of our whole yard (one of the problems of living in the middle of a Japanese city--the lack of land). 

The good news is that there are community gardens where you can rent out a plot of land and grow whatever you'd like. But then there are land rental fees, maintenance fees, and you have to transport your own produce from some far off garden area to your home. The cost skyrockets fast. I calculated the cost of renting one for a couple of years and found that it would probably be cheaper to simply buy the land, considering I could afford to do so, which I currently cannot (currently, as of 2014 in Japan, in the Tokyo area it cost over $4,000 USD per squared meter. Not acre ... per meter! for land. I don't live in Tokyo, but I do happen to live in a metropolitan city, so you can grasp my situation).

My vegan friend said that I should move to a more affordable area. 

Since when has moving ever been affordable?

The last move I did cost me $2K--and we had to move in with my wife's family, because, well, Japan ain't cheap... especially for a lowly paid teacher.

Moving would be ideal, but I don't think he was getting the picture. It's not a realistic consideration.

I live in a metropolitan city of over a million people, and a super high population density (Japanese cities are super dense population wise). If I could live out of town a ways and be wealthy enough to have a small plot of land, then yeah, I could see veganism as sustainable for a family of seven, soon to be eight, plus two dogs, and soon to be cat. But as it is, it simply isn't economically viable. 

But don't mistake me, I'm not writing off the possibility.

This year I made the choice to cut my meat consumption by 90%. What does that mean? Well, it means I try *not to eat meat and that I've switched over to a mostly vegetarian diet. I ask for soy milk in my Star Buck lattes and frapuccino's and I try to avoid eating meat as much as possible.  

But why not go the full 100%, you ask? Besides the high cost and not having any land to till, that is. Well, it's mainly because I can't digest rice well. 

Bear with me, the explanation becomes clear in a moment.

Eating rice makes me horribly constipated not to mention horribly fat (too much information, I know). I can do one bowl a day, and even that's a struggle. My Japanese family can down four or five bowls of rice per day, and I don't know how they do it (actually, I do--Japanese people, as with many Asians, have an additional enzymes [CAZymes] and bacteria [Bacterioides plebeius] that assists with breaking down rice and seafood, such as seaweed, that are lacking in most Caucasians).

So, unable to eat large quantities of rice, I am stuck mainly with vegetables. Which is fine. But remember, they're overly expensive where I live (10 times on average, making it roughly 20 times more costly here where I live).

So I still eat wheat products and things made with eggs (pastas and breads). Which is why I say I've adopted a mostly vegetarian diet and not raw vegetarian or vegan diet.

Another factor in this economic pickle of mine is that my time is extremely limited. I am a guy with two full time jobs. I teach full time as a private ESL teacher in three different public schools and I am a full time writer with deadlines set by either my publisher or by me, and on top of all this I am raising a daughter (and soon a boy), two dogs and a soon to be cat, and with everything else I hardly have time for myself. 

I'm not complaining though. I'm just mentioning it so that my excuses don't come off as invalid rationalizations. They are very real concerns. 

Sure, I could drastically uproot my lifestyle, move back to America, and drag my family along with me just to be vegan, but that's rather selfish. I can't think just about myself here, and although it bothers me (and there is some considerable cognitive dissonance) with respect to animal's dying and suffering, my daughter, son, and family is still more important than my cat or dog. If they weren't, then there would be something seriously wrong with my psychology, and quite likely my biology, as we are naturally more nurturing of our own offspring. 

Needless to say, my daughter and I eat a lot of fruit. She's never liked meat or dairy all that much, although she loves ice cream as much as I do, which uses dairy in it (although soy based ice creams are just as delicious and far more nutritious--so we eat that whenever possible). 

So in a typical week we usually sustain ourselves on large mangoes, grapes, a watermelon, peaches, cherries, and plums, boiled soybeans which are lightly salted (known as edamame), broccoli, tomatoes, and miso soup with seaweed. A handful of nuts here and there. And that's normal for us.

Of course, I realize that out of site out of mind doesn't help fix the problem of killing animals for food consumption, which is the main concern of most vegan advocates, I feel. 

Although I agree with their concern, their vitriol for anyone who happens to consume meat is out of place because their concerns, although well meaning from a moral standpoint, are not wholly realistic (as they nearly always neglect the case by case economics that go into making a vegan diet sustainable) nor entirely logical (for the same reasons but also because they let their emotions cloud their thinking about potential ways to limit meat consumption instead of cutting it out entirely--which is a more reasonable first step). 

If the vegan community could find a way to give my entire school district a sustainable vegan meal plan for the same cost as the current one, then I'd definitely like to go in that direction. But I really don't think that's economically viable. Otherwise, I'm sure someone, somewhere, would have tried it by now. This just goes to illustrate that telling people to knock off the meat eating isn't reasonable because it neglects all the real world considerations one must factor into such a massive dietary restructuring, and then the economics of it all comes raging back for serious consideration.

My vegan friend asked me, "What's the matter, you can't pack a salad and take that as your lunch instead?"

I've considered making my own salads and packing them the night before work, but even that gets pretty outrageously expensive. I can't be spending $14 per salad everyday, which is technically what it would cost to buy the produce and make it myself for every meal (let alone my entire family which would more than double the cost--have you ever eaten a $28 salad? Daily?)--even if I mix it up with tofu and what not--there is always a cost to consider. 

But everyone is different. Some might be able to make the switch faster. But talking down to those who haven't, as so many vegan advocates seem to do, is just bad form. You have to have a better method than screaming at people that they're wrong, otherwise you just come off sounding like a raging fundamentalist. 

All considered, I've made deliberate advances toward a vegetarian diet and am eating healthier and improving my food choices considerably. I even started eating vegetarian (meatless) chili this year and found it just as tasty as regular chili. I am now looking for recipes I can use to cook my own vegetarian chili (if you know of any drop it in the comments section below, thanks in advance).

I will continue to limit my meat intake as much as possible in the foreseeable future, and if it should become economically viable for me (and my family) to cut meat out entirely from out diets, I'd be certainly willing to make the switch.

My vegan friend once stated that eating meat is a cultural habit just like drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. 

Sorry, but I strongly disagree with this analogy. Mainly because it's a bad analogy. People don't need to eat cigarettes and smoke in order to live, but eating is an entirely other matter. We eat to live, not live to eat. And although alcohol and cigarettes are certainly recreational, eating food wasn't traditionally strictly a recreational activity. 

Additionally, it seems that culture plays a large role in the types of food certain communities do or do not consume. Island cultures, such as Japan and any of the Mediterranean islands, consume seafood far more readily than landlocked areas. 

I would go as far to say that even if the analogy was sound, which it's not, that smoking and drinking are cultural habits, and that if meat eating is a cultural habit now, it certainly didn't begin as one. Which is an important distinction, because it demonstrates that the analogy is strained at best.

Until quite recently, Native Americans all across the Great Plains of North America are hunter gathers which survived on meat products to get them through the long, harsh North American winters when there was little in the way of farming that could be done. This was life for thousands of years, until white settlers came and disrupted everything. Eskimo societies, in Alaska for example, rely mainly on fish and seafood diets because there is not much you can grow on the tundra and in the cold. So it seems eating meat arose out of a cultural necessity for may societies, not merely a cultural recreational activity. It's only in today's modern world that going out for a bite has become a recreational activity of sorts.

As it is, I cannot afford to go all out vegan due to bad economics of the otherwise super healthy vegan lifestyle. But since a sustainable vegan diet must both be affordable and time efficient, I am stuck with the affordability of meat products, made cheap by the over-consumption of animal products and animal farming, regrettably, it seems I will continue to be part of the problem a little while longer.

It's a shame too, because I would love to switch over entirely if it was cost efficient and sustainable for my whole family (because they need to eat too, after all).

Now this brings me to my vegan friends criticism that eating animals is morally wrong in any situation, no matter what, period.

It seems that such idealism is only viable when we can afford to stop eating meat as a society in its entirety and when the vegan diet finally becomes sustainable for all people everywhere regardless of the economics, then that consideration will be one to take seriously. 

Until that time however, we have to remain realistic. 

Humans have adaptable diets, and meat has been a part of hunting and gathering cultures within human societies for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years (humans have been eating meat for approximately 2.5 million years to be exact)

When vegans say that humans are *not suited for eating meat and that we have not sufficiently adapted to meat eating they are not being entirely truthful and may be forgetting about things like meat adaptive genes, lactose tolerance, and the aforementioned Bacterioides plebeius (gained from eating sea foods, particularity fish) which are all part of our evolutionary journey involving meat consumption.  

It's only recently, with the advent of irrigation and farming technologies that we have been able to grow enough food to sustain ourselves as a species, especially as a rapidly growing species in danger or overpopulating. Stopping meat cold turkey, if you'll pardon the pun, is most assuredly easier said than done.

I think it boils down to how do we make such a change happen on a large scale, and, well, that requires better information, better planning, more affordable cost, and more economic access to vegan foods. It requires better patience and understanding on the part of vegan advocates who use the moral concern as an excuse to try and blackmail people who have been raised on meat eating diets. Even if eating meat was purely a psychological issue, which it certainly isn't, but even if it was it stems to reason that you cannot de-program an entire culture in a decade, probably not even a century, probably not even several centuries. Thus vegans must continue to be ambassadors of peace, good reason, and diplomacy--they have a case and I feel they should certainly make it, but with the caveat that the moment they make unrealistic demands their demands become unreasonable. 

Don't mistake me, it's not that the moral consideration here that is misguided, vegans have a genuine moral concern, but it's not compelling to most because, as I have tried to illustrate, it simply isn't realistic. It's idealistic. 

I'd like to go the whole nine yards someday, but until it becomes economically viable I am afraid I am stuck at this 90% grey area. It's not ideal, but it's the best I can do right now. 

In the future I might write a more detailed essay using real statistics which show why economic considerations really do impact whether or not a vegan diet is truly sustainable (if not me, hopefully someone else--it would be beneficial for vegans for targeting economic areas that can be most easily adapted to more sustainable and cost efficient means regarding vegan foods while showing them other areas where serious works needs to be done). 

Veganism may be sustainable and economically viable for some, but not for others, and that's my whole point. I for one am willing to work with vegans to make it truly sustainable so that their concerns will become realistic for all of us instead of simply the idealism of the vegan advocate.


Ozzy on Affirming the Consequent and Modal Logic

There is a YouTuber and an arm chair philosopher (literally not figuratively--he's literally a trained philosopher that talks about philosophy from the comfort of an armchair) by the name of Ozzymandias Ramses II that is as keen and sharp as they come.  

In this video he deals with a common objection raised by religious apologists who like to claim that science rests on the fallacy of Affirming the Consequent. I know that it doesn't, but it's hard to put it as succinctly and as beautifully clear as Ozzy does. 

His explanation also helps clear up the distinction between modus ponens and modus tollens, which is one of the first things I learned about when studying modal logic. 

So, I hope those who are concerned with rationality and being better critical thinkers will take a look at this video, because it's highly rational, informative, and helps clarify a few key concepts in philosophy that are beneficial for those of us who like to engage in the Great Debate(TM).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tropical Typhoons, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis... Oh, my!

Typhoon Neoguri is heading straight for Kyushu, Kumamoto (where I live in Japan). We've already closed the blast doors (amido) which cover all the windows of our house with slatted metal aluminum shields to deflect rain and debris. 

I've been following it close on the English page of the Japan Meteorological Agency (which you can find by clicking here). The island that gets slammed (in the above image) by the typhoon is the on I am on. Kumamoto is the Prefecture facing the oncoming storm.

I'll keep you posted on how we fare. But if you don't here from me again... I've probably been whisked off to the magical land of Oz.

A beautiful calm 24 hours before the storm.

Probability for duration and strength of tropical cyclone.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sam Harris, Morality and Some Thoughts on the Belief in an Afterlife

I saw this Sam Harris quote floating around and thought I'd share it here.

I find this quote extremely important for several reasons.

First, I think it shows that there is a real genuine concern with what we might call human morality, or ethics, as separate from other kinds of morality, animal morality for example. It highlights the fact that morality is mainly a concern for humans, with what humans do, to and among other humans.

Which brings me to the second reason I find this quote important, it helps to highlight the fact that without our ability to reason, our moral considerations would largely be meaningless, whether or not things like objective morality should exist.

Morality, whether subjective or objective, can only have meaning if we know how to think about moral considerations and have moral concerns. Morality can only have importance to us if we know how to think about our actions in ethical terms and are able to weigh, either through empathy or pure reason, the full weight of the moral consequences as a result should we choose this rather than that particular action.

Sam Harris asks us to pause and reflect upon the fact that everyone who is alive, or who has ever lived, looses everything they have ever valued or loved in life, including life itself. 

Regardless of what anybody may think about this life, there comes a time when the life we have will vanish--will cease to be. But what will happen once we shuffle off this mortal coil, as Shakespeare's Hamlet questioned, is anybody's guess.

Because of this Sam wants us to consider that if we all loose everything in the end, why would we want to compound the suffering of others in this life by making it more miserable for others full well knowing that this life may be the only chance they have at achieving any modicum of happiness. Who would be so cruel as to deliberately and willfully take that away from their fellow human beings? Obviously, those who do not feel that moral questions matter, or those who think it doesn't apply to them, for whatever reason.

My own analogy goes something like this. 

Suppose we're all sitting in a lifeboat together (it's a rather big, all encompassing lifeboat). To our collective dismay, the boat is discovered to have a leak in it and it's slowly, but surely, sinking. Some people believe, for strange and peculiar if not often strained reasons, that fathoms below the sinking boat is a submarine waiting for them. 

Now consider that some of these submarine believers, holding to this rather far-fetched belief in a hidden submarine ready to rescue them, decide it would be better to sink the boat faster and get aboard the submarine rather than suffer through a long bout of sea sickness.

Sam's question is a pertinent one. Why would we, or anyone else for that matter, want to make things worse by bringing water into the boat or rocking the boat so much that people start toppling out?

What purpose would that serve?

As Harris has pointed out numerous times before, for the religious mind which believes in an afterlife, it could serve a hastening of a new life--a heavenly life--just as the people in the boat who imagine a submarine waiting form them a few fathoms below the ocean surface feel that taking on water will get them to their heavenly submarine faster. 

Which is why Harris has stated, and quite rightly I might add, that religious radicals are most likely a serious threat to our collective well being. They have no moral conscience holding them back from prematurely sinking the boat and taking everyone with them because, quite to the contrary, it is their ardent belief that hastening the sinking of the boat is the best course of action. 

In other words, all their morality is tied up with whether or not their assumptions about the submarine waiting form them are in fact correct. And it doesn't necessarily matter if they are correct, because for all intents and purposes, they believe they are correct. That's enough to cause us to worry.

But for the secular person, indeed, for atheists and agnostics, we realize that our moral actions have very real consequences here and now, and if this is the only life we have, then we have to make sure our actions, words, and ideas matter and that we treat everything with the proper amount of responsibility and reflection lest we risk sinking the boat prematurely and find, that contrary to the beliefs of some, there was never any submarine there to begin with.

I suppose the real question is, for those who don't feel burdened by such a moral responsibility because they feel they'll get another chance to live a happier life, the question is, why wouldn't you want the life others have to be a happy one--especially knowing that a large portion of these people won't enjoy the happy afterlife you expect to find yourself in? 

Some religious believers claim that unbelievers are bound to hell. Well, I have a problem with this. It's a lot like saying that the person sitting in the sinking boat simply isn't going to make it because, as fate would have it, they can't swim. If that's truly the case, then teaching them to swim would be of tantamount importance, and I know some religious people think saving the nonbeliever is an important cause. But the question I keep coming back to, does that supply any moral reason to sink the boat any faster? I don't think so.

Also, what if you picked the wrong religion and you bet on the wrong God and Allah is the one true God, and you spent your life as a Christian, or vice-versa, so you're really not going to heaven, but hell? What if it's not a friendly submarine down there waiting to take us? What if it's the North Koreans? Why risk gambling so recklessly? Why throw away your life and the live's of others on one giant what if? Seems irresponsible, if you ask me.

And when I see things like this... 

Well, I think we all have concern to worry. Why? Because...

Both of these girls have magical beliefs in imagined submarines that may or may not be there for the rest of us. 

And when they start waving around their guns, well, their magical beliefs might just be insidious enough to convince them that blowing a hole wide open in our big lovely boat might just serve their best interests. 

And that's the point I'm trying to make here. It can't be about our  *individual best interests. It has to be about the interests of all of us, which is why Sam Harris expresses morality as any goal which strives toward bringing about human (and animal) flourishing. Anything that impedes human (or animal) flourishing would fall somewhere on the nasty side of the swamp end of the moral landscape. Anything that helps raise human flourishing to new echelons must reside somewhere on the grand peaks of that same moral landscape.

It's expressly because morality is a rational endeavor, and that we must reason through what is right and what is wrong that appeals to higher morality are rather meaningless. Regardless of whether there exists a morality outside of ourselves, it's how we go about in living moral lives that matters. It's the moral landscape we traverse daily, which concerns us. It's only here on this playing field that the moral game has lasting consequences and so every moral action counts.

Don't be Holly Fisher with her Bible and her overly big gun (for no reason) proud of her magical beliefs. Don't be the radical religious person who, in their zealousness, thinks they have the truth of it all. Don't go believing in hidden submarines that may or may not be there. Don't go chasing waterfalls, for that matter.

Let's be reasonable. Let's reason together.

Just because there might be a happier life after this (something we could never be sure about until, well, after the fact), and that's certainly a big what if, what justifiable reason could anyone have for spreading misery and making reckless decisions that could potentially harm others in this life?

As far as I'm concerned, there aren't any excuses--not even magical books, beliefs, or submarines can justify sinking the boat which everyone else has no choice but to be in alongside with you. Don't think that your desires, your thoughts, and your feelings trump the desires, thoughts, and feelings other people, as if you were the only person that mattered.

It's not just about you. It's about all of us.

What matters, I should hope, is each other

Which is why I think it is expressly important to pause to consider our moral actions and their consequences.

I just wish more people would take the time to think about these issues, because, regardless of what you may believe, the fact remains that we're all in this boat together.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Advocate (Promote) Atheism?

Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist just released a video explaining why he feels obliged to promote atheism. I thought it was a good topic to discuss, so following his lead I will offer my own reasons of why I am an advocate for atheism.

Atheism is actually more than just the non-belief in deities. Don't get me wrong, the definition of atheism is certainly a straight forward concept, but what we might highlight as cultural atheism, including but not limited to New Atheism, the atheist thinkers who came out of the Golden Age of Freethough, such as the Great Agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll, the atheist thinkers who came out of various enlightenments, whether it is Paul Thiry d'Holbach or David Hume, are all representative of a secular tradition that upholds atheism as, perhaps, something more than just the mere lack of belief in God or gods.

Cultural atheism, like cultural Christianity, is merely a byproduct of living in a secular culture and society which adopts a secular worldview. There's nothing controversial about it. But at the same time, I have found that secular ideals often require things like good critical thinking, skepticism, and reasoning skills in order to remain truly secular. The moment age-old superstition creeps in you lose the secular world view and it gets supplanted by religious myths and fancies.

This requires secularism to maintain a kind of equilibrium with the various cultures it co-exists alongside, and this equilibrium, as far as I can tell, is largely dependent on two factors: naturalism (which atheism is a consequence of) and being open minded and flexible, i.e. being able to change one's mind about things--something quite anemic to religious beliefs.

Because I value things like truth, not multiplying assumptions unnecessarily, of being intellectually honest, it seems that all this and more can be encompassed within cultural atheism. That is to say, a majority of the things I value can be contained in this form of atheism.

It's much harder to value these things and be religious, at least not without a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, I'd imagine.

As such, atheism allows one to maintain a clear mind, because there is less cognitive dissonance. As such, it allows one to focus their critical thinking skills on things that matter, with a clarity that I lacked when I was a believer.

I like to advance atheism because atheism has no doctrines or creeds to advance itself upon, unlike the theocratic policies of many world religions. That makes it doubly interesting to me, because those who adopt atheism will have a wide array of political beliefs and worldviews, and it becomes the burden of the atheist to figure out which is the best, or at least, most beneficial one.

Similarly, atheism is pretty wide open because it makes minimal assumptions. So anything else you may believe in addition to atheism must stand on its own merits, unlike religion which uses its own assumptions to buttress itself up all the time.

If you choose to become an atheist, there is no laziness about simply having beliefs (as with religion), since it is your burden to find valid reasons for holding those beliefs, and atheism surely isn't going to make that easy for you.

But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Atheism is for thinking people, because it gives rooms for the free exchange of ideas, without any interference. It lets you learn more about the world while not telling you how you ought to think or believe.

It's quite novel in that regard.

Atheism is compatible with naturalism, democracy, science, and secularism whereas religion has a great deal amount of friction with all of these things. As such, to be religious forces you into a position of defense anytime any of these things are brought up as a topic of discussion, but with atheism there is nothing to defend (quite literally).

Atheists, I have found, tend to be more rational minded than believers. This doesn't mean there aren't rational believers, because I know some extremely smart theists and deists, but what I have noticed is that many atheists begin with one set of belief propositions and, having given them a certain amount of thought, rationalize their way out of these rigid belief systems to atheism. Because of this, many atheists (not all, of course--but many) are quite rational minded.

I know many deists who prefer to befriend atheists rather than their religious theist counterparts, because atheists are less judgmental of other beliefs, because for the atheist, if there is a true belief out there when it comes to God--we'd like to know it!

After all, atheists have nothing to lose.

Also, atheists are highly curious.

Ideas, beliefs, worldviews... all these and more pique our curiosity, so we're willing to sit down an talk about these subjects with practically anyone!

Atheists are social. At least some of them.

Atheists take care of themselves and live life to the fullest, because according to their worldview, it's the only life they have.

This makes atheists heaps of fun, because they have so many interests which they want to engage in to make the best of their lives!

Atheists care. Atheists are sometimes anti-theists, because we can see and identify the dangerous elements of religion which negatively impact people, culture, and society. Atheists want the world to be a better place, not a worse place, so we will argue against those things which we perceive to be an imminent threat.

Atheists are highly moral, in part because many atheists are also humanists. But also because we realize this being the only life we have, we don't want to spend the only life we have suffering and we don't think anyone else should either.

It is often said that atheists have no purpose or reason to live. This is only a half truth, because in all truth we all can find a purpose or a reason to live. It's like Sylvester Stallone said in the fourth Rambo movie, "Die for something, or live for nothing." Which is another way of saying you have to live and die for something otherwise you've lived for nothing.

So atheists aren't without purpose to life. Our purpose for living is whatever we make it, and because we don't believe in an afterlife we must make our purpose a good one so that this one, precious life will have meaning.

If you believe in an afterlife, then there is less of an impetus to attach any meaning to your life or find any real purpose--you are free to float in limbo hoping fate will give you a meaningful life. But atheists are realistic--we don't feel comfortable hanging all our hopes on a pipe dream, on fate, or on God. Not when we have the power to make our lives have meaning here and now.

Atheists want to help others because the here and now matters to us. We want children to have good scientific educations and we don't want religion to interfere with the education of our children. Lots of times this sentiment comes from atheists who were raised up religious, or who had religious educations, and see how truly inferior a religious education is to a secular one. This isn't to say all religious educations are bad ones, but the ones which limit knowledge to only what that religion will accept can never truly be about the unabashed learning one can enjoy minus those religious restrictions.

I could go and ad nauseam of why I find atheism attractive and worth advocating, but needless to say, I'm not going to force my atheism down your throat.

Although I find it worth talking about, I am not going to dictate that you should become an atheist. Unlike many religions, there simply no reason for an atheist to expect you to think and believe exactly like they do.

All this and more makes atheism appealing to me personally, but I think some of these reasons may make atheism a little more attractive to you as well.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Authenticity: Reflections on Why I Lied to Myself About the Existence of God

I recently watched a video by the philosopher Peter Boghossian about being authentic. 

By being authentic he means being honest with yourself as well as others, being honest with what you can know and the limits of your own knowledge, not obfuscating just to cover up the fact that you may not know, and admitting uncertainty when you simply don't know instead of making shit up.

The lecture got me to thinking about how religious people often deceive themselves when it comes to their faith. But instead of pointing out all the obvious lies of staunch religionists and Christian apologists, I want to look back at my own self-deception.

First off, let me just preface this with the disclaimer that I fully understand why people continue to believe. Just because I believe they have told themselves a fib and bought into it doesn't mean I think all religious believers are excessive compulsive liars. 

The main thing to realize is that we are often inculcated and indoctrinated into religion. The lie is already in place, and as children we believe it because this is what we are taught. We simply do not know any better.

The deception is already in place. But the self-deception comes later. The self-deception arises when we become capable of reasoning on our own, as thinking individuals and adults who have entered into the age of reason. 

A young mind, needless to say, cannot escape the constant bombardment of beliefs they are told to accept until they can honestly evaluate those beliefs for themselves. Once one enters into the age of reason however, it is at this stage where self-deception enters the game.

For me it probably began when I entered college. I was late entering into the age of reason because high school was fun and games, and lots of church. It wasn't until college that I became open to learning. It wasn't until university life, away from my secluded small town in a conservative red state, that I finally learned about things like science, including physics and biology, philosophy, including other worldviews that differed from my own, and on top of all this I read a whole lot of literature--that is, I was a full time English Lit. major doing a second degree in Asian Cultural studies at the same time. The university library became a second home to me.

Looking back, I realize I had amassed enough information to come to the atheistic worldview on my own, yet I hadn't. I wouldn't stop believing in God until I was 30 years old. So what kept me a devout practitioner of the faith for three long decades?

Was it compelling evidence?


Was it compelling apologetic and theological arguments?


Was it my environment? (Well, till a degree, perhaps, but not since I was attending a secular institution).

Not really.

Was it my experience with God?

No, I stopped attending church functions to double down on my studies.

So what exactly kept me a believer for so many long years?

I think Peter Boghossian's point about being authentic reflects what is probably all too common among those who are raised in the faith. We learn to lie to ourselves because we've been told lies about reality since we could barely walk and talk.

I was simply lying to myself. Denial, after all, is the best reassurance there is! God is real! When I was in doubt, I'd just repeat the prayers in my head like a mantra, until I started believing what I was saying in my mind represented some aspect of the truth.

But it wasn't true. It was all in my imagination. In fact, I think I knew that. I often would begin my prayers with, "God, if you're hearing this..." or "God, if you're really there..." 

But this only forced me to my knees to pray even harder. And after long spells of focusing all my heart, mind, and soul on God... I felt relieved. God always was there for me, watching out for me, and Jesus was willing to take long walks on the beach just to wait for me to ask why there was only one set of footprints in the sand--and why had he abandoned me. 

The Jesus in my head echoed the words of the overly sentimental poem, there is only one set of footprints in the sand because that is when I carried you. But did anyone actually carry me? Did divine intervention lift me up and pull me out of my moments of desperation? No. Strange looking back that it never occurred to me that the footprints were my own, and that the voices in my head were my own as well.

Like many believers, I was good at convincing myself that there were signs. I wanted God to be real, so I always kept an eye open for those mysterious works of his. Then when I saw some positive reward in my life, well, I attributed it to God. It was a miracle! You see, that lie boosts one's confidence that God really is watching out for them and theirs.

But it was still a lie.

It was learning to be authentic, with myself and certainly with others, that led me to finally admit I couldn't keep pretending that I had answers or signs from God. These were all my imagining. At the end of the day, I simply had to admit that I didn't have all the answers. 

And that was scary. Scarier still, I didn't know what would happen if I stopped telling myself the lie. In fact, I think this fear actually drove me away from admitting the truth for quite some time.

I didn't want to admit I was wrong about my beliefs, because so many believed and how could so many be so wrong? It seemed impossible. 

What's more I didn't want to be a disappointment to my family and friends, all devout Christians. So many held me up as a fine example of a good Christian and told me to soldier on. I jumped in the deep end and there was nothing you could say or do to get me out of the water, I was on fire for Christ, I was a Jesus Freak, I was all about Interfaith ministries, fellowship with other Christians, Bible studies, Christian charities, and so on and so forth. But what I didn't realize was that I was slowly drowning myself in the lies I told to myself.

I had devoted so much time to practicing my religion that I wasn't growing as a person. But that didn't matter, because at the time my goal was to grow in my relationship with Christ, not grow as an individual.

As often happens, it stunted my mental and physical growth. I've mentioned before how my pious religious beliefs made me a miserable virgin, inexperienced with women, but worse than this, entirely fearful of sex. So much so that it gave me anxiety attacks just to think about pretty girls whenever I masturbated. And sex and masturbation was simply Satan's way of trying to tempt me away from Christ--that was the lie I told myself. And I believed it. And it made me miserable.

But still, I couldn't give up my religious beliefs.

They were my beliefs!

I had these beliefs that others shared, and being a part of something, that felt good. Being Christian, being part of the team, that made me feel that I could do no wrong. After all, I was a weak, broken, sinner in need of saving, and only Jesus could save me from myself--at least that was the lie I told myself.

Fellowship reinforced my Christian beliefs, and so I became that more entrenched in them.

It felt good.

For a long time I just wanted to keep that comfort blanket that my religious faith afforded me wrapped tightly around me. With the armor of God, armed with his Holy Word, I felt as if I could face any challenge in the world--at least, that's the lie I told myself. In all honesty, I was ill-prepared to face anything in the real world. 

But then I went out into the world, and it shook me to my core, and somewhere along the lines I had to learn to grow up. Never-Never Land was just a myth, and the time had come to leave childish things behind me.

My life in Japan played a large part in my deconversion and ultimately into shaping the person I am now. 

But the change that occurred in me was something more than that as well.

It was finally realizing that I could be honest with myself--and that I wouldn't go to hell for not admitting absolute certainty in what I believed. I was free to have doubts! Free to question. Free to look back on my beliefs and ask myself if they had any semblance of truth. Furthermore, I could be honest about what I knew. And the more I realized how much I didn't know the more humble I became by this acknowledgement.

So I stopped pretending to know what I couldn't know for certain.

And I started searching for the answers.

I still am.

But at least now I have no pretenses about what it is I believe and who I am as a person, and I'd like to think that as I've matured over the years I've gradually grown more authentic and more comfortable with admitting I don't know instead of coming up with the best possible lie to soothe away my fears.

It was a long time coming, but I've finally learned to stop lying to myself, and that feels liberating beyond belief.

Now when I talk about these things people who knew me then say I was never a real Christian. Or they say I am rebelling against God. Or that I am overly confident in my own intellect.

But I never fell away, per se. I never turned my back on God, as I've so often been accused of doing. I just grew up.

And I never rebelled. I've never been the rebellious type. I simply learned to think for myself--which is also part of growing up.

Finally, I wasn't instructed or told what to think and believe. I was free to forge my own philosophies, find my own beliefs, and that much is half the battle right there.

At least I no longer have to pretend to know things I can't possibly know just to feel good. 

Now my eyes are wide open to the world, and I am curiously gazing out at the universe as if for the first time, and I see now that I wasted so many years lying to myself about what I thought I knew.

Now I begin with a clean slate. At least now it's a slate of my own writing.

Better late than never, I suppose.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Naturalism: Is it Defensible? I think so. Here's why.

Over the course of debating with theists online, I find there is a world-weariness that plagues many theologians and apologists. Some theologians, like Alvin Plantinga, feel that Ontological, or metaphysical, Naturalism is invalid, even incoherent (which professional philosophers responded to in kind). In a recent discussion over at Mike D's blog the A-Unicornist, a theist raised the common criticism of Naturalism, stating that

"No amount of empirical observations can derive the proposition that the natural world is all that exists. This jump can only be made by metaphysics. Similarly, it is only metaphysics that can lead us to theism."

This is a true statement. But it's also sort of beside the point. I tried to explain why in my follow up response. I wrote:

The naturalist doesn't have to operate on the assumption that the natural world is necessarily all there is. Merely that it appears to be all there is.

Whether this is an illusion and there is an underlying supernature, or whether this requires metaphysics to get off the ground, is beside the point. As it appears, it appears to be foundational. At least it is falsifiable, unlike many of the super-nature propositions I hear about--since you can't falsify claims or propositions that aren't properly defeasible and which there is no evidence for and which no demonstration can be made.

Saying nature appears to be all there is fits with what we can observe, since we don't observe any super-nature or super-realties. Thus the burden of proof is on someone who makes the positive claim that there is a super-nature undergirding the nature we observe, since that is a positive claim about the function of super-natures, i.e. to give rise to the nature we observe, as far as we can tell.

Now, you could claim that metaphysical realities merely overlap with and do not prop-up or give rise to our natural world, but then you are back to square one of having to demonstrate a super-reality beyond this reality (one which fits your assumptions) in order to justify the metaphysics your are trying to invoke which has no relevant relationship to the reality we observe, merely to the theism you wish to describe (a conceptualization).

As to the question of whether or not there is anything of a super-nature, on the other hand, requires a kind of evidence and demonstration which would show that nature couldn't explain or predict things which a super-nature could, and that these claims and predictions could be shown true beyond a reason of a doubt. I don't see this to be the case.

Whereas nature could be foundational, as nature does seem to allow for explanations and predictions that can be verified as true, hence lending credence to the reliability of metaphysical naturalism.

Therefore it appears to me that metaphysical naturalism is warranted on far fewer presuppositions than theism. So it seems to me naturalism is a more reasonable conclusion to derive from the observation of nature as we observe it in reality than theism is, regardless of the metaphysics involved.

Proposing super-realities, or super-natures, to justify suppositions about super-entities defies Occam's razor as none of these assumptions are warranted in the same way presupposing naturalism is warranted based on the reality we observe.
I grant you that it’s a viable alternative model, but it’s problematic because it would need to have some utility beyond the mere presuppositions it makes in order to be warranted in the same way naturalism seems to be warranted.

The fact that naturalism requires an underlying metaphysics doesn’t change the fact that it appears to be foundational (i.e., relying on weak foundationalism and externalism). Again, it appears to be justifiable because the assumptions made from it allow us to make claims and predictions which accurately describe systems within nature as to give us a reliable model of reality (what philosophers call systematic dependency relationships).

If there are other metaphysics beyond this, they would need to prove themselves in a similar way whereby systematic dependency relationships can only be identified via reason, but under this Kantian view *reason should also be capable of detecting other forms of valid systematic dependency relationships between reality as experienced and other forms of metaphysics. However, in my opinion, no other such systematic dependency relationships have been established beyond the ones existing between naturalism and the reality we experience and observe.

Although it appears Naturalism does boil down to metaphysical assumptions, that's perfectly okay because it appears to be the case that metaphysical naturalism is reliable and can be demonstrated as such via the predictions it makes about nature and the observed reality we experience.

The mistake it seems many theists are making is because Naturalism rests on metaphysical assumptions they think, for whatever reasons, that their form of metaphysics must also be true. This, of course, is incorrect. There are various competing forms of metaphysics. The only way to know if anyone represents an accurate view of reality is to hold them up against that reality and test how reliable they are in terms of the sorts of predictions they make.

Such demonstrations are easier said than done, and it is one of the reasons I feel Naturalism has a likely probability of being correct. It can be demonstrated, at least to a degree, which comports with reality. If other proposed metaphysics succeeded in the same way I would be inclined to take them more seriously.

A few books on Naturalism and its implications:

Mario De Caro
Naturalism and Normativity

Essay's on naturalism and normativity. I recommend reading the first chapter, on the section called "The Doctrines of Scientific Naturalism" and "The Doctrines of Liberal Naturalism" to get a good overview of what philosophical naturalism entails.

Graham Oppy
The Best Argument Against God

An argument on why naturalism defeats theism by a well known professional philosopher.

Richard Carrier
Sense and Goodness Without God

Several good sections on metaphysical naturalism and related moral considerations / consequences.

Bas. C. van Fraassen
The Scientific Image

Fraassen  raises solid objections to scientific realism, which have consequences for scientific naturalism.

Advocatus Athesit

Advocatus Athesit